Vacationing with charity-minded tour operators

Los Angeles Times

You don’t need to sign up for a U.N. mission, deliver medical aid to a developing country or renounce your possessions to improve the planet. By enjoying a vacation with a charity-minded tour operator, you’re already helping humanity. Many such companies give back to the far-flung destinations their leisure clients visit.

Take Boston-based Grand Circle Corp., which typically sends more than 100,000 travelers, mostly 50 and older, on trips each year. Since 1992, its nonprofit arm, Grand Circle Foundation, has donated or pledged $47 million to educational and humanitarian efforts around the world, a significant part financed by tour proceeds, said spokeswoman Priscilla O’Reilly.

Austin-Lehman Adventures in Billings, Mont., which offers high-end hiking, biking and multi-sport trips to about 1,100 travelers each year, donates bicycles to an African community.

And at the even smaller Journeys Within Tour Co., which runs a five-room bed-and-breakfast in Cambodia and crafts custom trips for several hundred people each year, philanthropy is woven into the activities. Its travel clients can tour community projects they help finance.

“Living and working in Cambodia, we were really aware of the poverty all around us,” said British-born Andrea Ross, who, with her American-born husband, Brandon, founded Journeys Within in 2003. Two years later, they set up a nonprofit group to do something about it.

A closer look at how these three companies do good:

Grand Circle Corp.: For every person who books with one of the company’s two tour operators, Grand Circle Travel and Overseas Adventure Travel, $10 goes to an allied foundation, which has five staff members and supports projects in 30 countries, O’Reilly said. Hundreds of travelers each year also choose to donate.

One of the foundation’s longest-running projects, World Classroom, aids schools in nearly 100 communities. At the Ngamo Primary School in Bulawayo, Zimbabwe, for instance, it has spent nearly $80,000 to build classrooms, replace roofing, buy furniture and make other improvements.

With recent efforts to set up a farming cooperative in a Thai village and a sewing workshop in Egypt, Grand Circle has expanded into community building as well. And when a crisis hits, its tour customers respond. More than 4,200 this year have sent money to help earthquake-ravaged Haiti, O’Reilly said.

Austin-Lehman Adventures: What’s more recyclable than a bicycle? With that in mind, this company is partnering with Bicycles for Humanity, which collects used bikes and sends them to developing countries, where they provide vital transportation. Dan Austin, Austin-Lehman co-founder, also founded the Billings, Mont., chapter of the charity.

For every traveler who joins its weeklong bike trip in October through Italy’s Tuscany region ($3,398 per person), Austin-Lehman will donate $1,000 to build a shop with hundreds of bikes in rural Ngoma, Namibia, along with a center where locals can learn to repair their two-wheelers. Then, on a 10-day African bike tour next year, participants will visit Ngoma and the new facilities, along with traditional tourist sites such as Victoria Falls.

Closer to home, Austin-Lehman is aiding the nonprofit Glacier National Park Fund, which helps preserve the Montana park, by donating $100 for each participant in its three multi-sport vacations there in August. Under its new “Preserve a Park” program, the company will aid a different park each year.

Journeys Within Tour Co.: Education is a major focus for this company’s allied nonprofit, Journeys Within Our Community. Using private donations, many of them from past tour customers, it is providing scholarships for more than than 100 university students in Cambodia, Laos and Myanmar. Hundreds more students, from age 3 to adults, take extracurricular classes on tradtiional dancing, English and other subjects offered by the the nonprofit, Andrea Ross said.

The organization also finances local micro-loans and clean-water efforts, including digging wells. Tour clients last year contributed more than $160,000 to the various programs.

“From the beginning, guests wanted to hear about what we’re doing and wanted to get involved and help,” Andrea Ross said. “I honestly believe that philanthropic travel can change the world.”